If you've ever seen Elon Musk speak in person, you'll notice he doesn't come off as the most rehearsed or polished speaker in the business world. He stutters and stumbles and rambles from time to time. But he clearly possesses both great vision and impressive command of even the granular details to make it a reality.
Once at South by Southwest, Musk answered a question about SpaceX on stage with a soliloquy about rocket engineering that covered everything from gravity to gaskets, leaving no room for follow-up questions and many in the room feeling a bit lost.
New research into charismatic leaders suggests it's this combination of being a visionary, but with an operational mindset associated with lower levels of charisma that could make Musk the serial success story he's become.
Researchers from Ghent University compared the charisma scores of hundreds of business leaders against perceptions of their effectiveness, according to peers, subordinates and superiors.
"Leaders with both low and high charismatic personalities were perceived as being less effective than leaders with moderate levels of charisma," said Ghent's Filip De Fruyt, PhD, co-author of the study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
The researchers found that less charismatic leaders tended to be seen as less effective due to lacking in the vision and strategy department, while those with more charisma scored low due to their weakness on operations. Having a good mix of both vision and execution, as seen in moderately charismatic leaders, seems to be the secret sauce and that appears to be the case for Musk as well.
"While conventional wisdom suggests that highly charismatic leaders might fail for interpersonal reasons like arrogance and self-centeredness, our findings suggest that business-related behaviors, more than interpersonal behavior, drive leader effectiveness ratings," she said.
So what does this mean for the old trope that the biggest names in business also happen to be the biggest jerks (something you may have heard about Musk)?
"While conventional wisdom suggests that highly charismatic leaders might fail for interpersonal reasons like arrogance and self-centeredness, our findings suggest that business-related behaviors, more than interpersonal behavior, drive leader effectiveness ratings," said Ghent doctoral student and study lead author Jasmine Vergauwe.
Translation: jerks can make great leaders, so long as they're only moderately charismatic.